With only a few weeks to go before the start of school, there is mounting concern about the future of Ontario’s private bus companies.
For the past three years the government of Ontario has been running pilot projects to judge the effectiveness of making bidding for bus routes a competitive tendering process with five-year contracts instead of the annual non-tendered process that has occurred for decades.
Private bus operators throughout the province cried foul as they feared they would lose routes, and business, to larger, multinational bus companies.
On June 23, Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky announced a moratorium on the ministry’s support of a competitive route procurement policy for bus operators in the province, saying she would assemble a taskforce to study the affects of this new policy and present a report in December.
Yet small operators across the province remain nervous, as Dombrowsky has yet to make any new announcements on the taskforce or the direction the report is taking.
“The frustrating thing right now is the announcement was made in late June and there has been no mention of it since, so operators are quite anxious to get that underway so that we can have that process reviewed,” said Sean Payne, president of the Independent School Bus Operators Association.
The new policy would require all bus companies to engage in a competitive bidding process for bus routes. Payne is worried this process will see bigger businesses undercutting smaller operators, leading to a monopoly in the industry.
“The process itself is not conducive to our market. School bussing is a lot more distinct than buying photocopiers or paperclips – our operators are very specific to certain geographic areas.”
He said that small, family-owned operations know their regions better than other companies do, making for safer drivers and safer routes for buses and the students riding them. But under this new competitive policy, jobs will be lost: 18 companies in the province have already been forced out of business after losing their routes, he said.
Here in Waterloo Region, bus contracts have been competitively tendered for the past year-and-a-half and the school board has already signed a five-year contract with a consortium of bus operators. The general manager of student transportation services at the region’s public and Catholic school boards sees the process of more cost-effective for taxpayers, and a better way of doing business.
“It is obviously difficult for a small operator with one, two or even 10 buses to operate competitively in this market today,” said Benoit Bourgault. “But at the end of the day I don’t think the taxpayers of Ontario are willing to pay more because it’s a small operator. They need to find ways to remain competitive and provide a safe and reliable service.”
Bourgault said that of the five companies that the board has tendered contracts to in the area, two are international – Stock Transportation and Elliott Coach Lines – and three that are owned and operated within the province – Cherrey Bus Lines, Sharp Bus Lines and Voyageur Transportation Services.
In Waterloo Region, 30,000 students are bussed daily at an annual cost of about $18 million.
Bourgault also said that through the competitive tendering process in Waterloo, many small operators actually retained old routes or even gained new routes, while larger operators lost routes – and thus money.
“It has nothing to do with the operator,” he said. “It has all to do with providing a safe, reliable, efficient and cost-effective service.
“At the end of the day we need to think of the cargo that they’re transporting, it’s extremely precious.”
The ISBOA, however, believes that when it comes to transporting children to school every day, it should come down to more than whoever is just the lowest bidder. Simply put, the drivers and the companies who know the region and the roads the best should be the ones behind the wheel, and for Payne, that often means more local companies.
“Essentially what makes the system safe is the stability of it; the same drivers, same operators, and they have those years of experience and that’s what brings stability and safety to the industry,” he said.
When asked what would happen to the long-term future of small bus operators in the province if the project is allowed to go forward, he said that “It will create a monopoly over time within the industry, and once that happens, [school boards] will lose control of their prices.”